An exceedingly demeaning portrait of a significant feminist / anarchist figure in “Emma Goldman – An exceedingly dangerous woman”

Mel Bucklin, “Emma Goldman – An Exceedingly Dangerous Woman” (2003)

This portrait of Emma Goldman, the American woman anarchist / political activist / writer / feminist / advocate for socially liberal causes, is as much a survey of politics and society in the United States from the 1890s to 1940, the year of Goldman’s death, as it is of her life; it also reflects in its narrative some unpleasant aspects of our current society of which more will be said later. The style of the documentary is deceptively straightforward: it’s a chronology of Goldman’s life, her work and the people she worked with, told through a mixture of photograph and picture stills, interviews with historians, artists and writers, and re-enactments of significant episodes in Goldman’s life, all laid over by voice-over narration. The pace is leisurely and the narrator and interviewees speak and explain particular aspects of Goldman’s life clearly yet paint a very complex picture of Goldman, the life she led, the contrast between her beliefs and ideals on the one hand and the reality she lived on the other, and how she navigated her way through a conservative society that was (and in many ways still is) unready for her politics, thinking and message of sexual equality in both private and public life. The film is part of the “American Documentary” series issued and distributed by PBS.

Goldman’s life is picked up in her teens when she has already emigrated to the US from Russia, has started working in a factory and is becoming political and radicalised through associations with radical workers and after-hours socialising. In those days (1850s – early 20th century), talk of revolution, socialism and better working and living conditions was popular with working class people (or it just seems that way from the viewpoint of our current self-absorbed cocoon society). After a short failed marriage, Goldman moves to New York City and meets anarchists Alexander Berkman and Johann Most: Most starts training Goldman as a public speaker and Berkman becomes her friend and eventual lover. Goldman and Berkman are involved in a factory strike which indirectly leads to Berkman being sentenced to 20 years in jail (the actual cause is that he tried but failed to kill the factory manager). Goldman later breaks with Most, and keeps up a busy life that includes jail-time (during which she studied nursing and read many books), lecturing in the US and abroad, writing a magazine called Mother Earth, and being implicated by Leon Czolgosz in his murder of US President William McKinley. After Berkman is released from jail, having served 14 years, the couple try but fail to pick up their relationship; Goldman later marries a doctor called Ben Reitman (the marriage is short-lived). She switches from advocating revolution and worker freedom to talking feminism, freedom in love, sex and marriage, and birth control. Come World War I and Goldman and Berkman oppose conscription; after the war, they are jailed briefly as traitors with the option of deportation. They go to the Soviet Union to live but although they follow politics and events in that country, they become disillusioned with Lenin’s government and its methods of repression and leave the country. Goldman spends the rest of her life travelling in Europe and Canada, lecturing and writing on various topics, maintaining her friendship with Berkman until his death in 1936, before dying herself in Canada in 1940.

The film concentrates heavily on events in Goldman’s life and not much on her anarchist philosophy or other writing and on her thoughts and opinions on subjects such as capitalism, fascism, feminism, prisons and criminal justice, atheism and homosexuality. Goldman’s life is split in phases depending on her relationships with men; there’s nothing about any women who might have been significant influences on her life. The structuring of Goldman’s chronology in this way does the woman a great disservice, given that she believed strongly in men and women being equal partners in all aspects of life even if she didn’t necessarily always practise what she preached. One woman who must have been a great influence on Goldman’s beliefs was the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger whom Goldman supported and whose pamphlets she helped distribute. Some significant events are brushed out of the film completely: there is no mention of the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 9) in which Goldman took great interest and followed. Makes you wonder what else the film deliberately left out. There is no mention of Goldman’s influence on philosophical thought, feminist theory or popular culture after her death.

My impression is that the film packages Goldman’s life in a way that makes it palatable to a politically and culturally conservative audience and pigeon-holes her as an idealist naive about the reality of human nature and the society around her, and its capacity for improvement; this fits in with current ideas about humans as biologically rather than culturally predetermined in their behaviour. Goldman is made to sink into a funk after Berkman’s death and the ultimate message seems to be that even a rebel like Goldman needs a man psychologically if not physically to give meaning and structure to her life. Goldman’s continuing interest in politics, her opposition to World War II and her disgust at late-1930s life and society in Britain and France which led her to retreat to Canada to live are glossed over. It’s as if Goldman is just an interesting minor footnote in American political, social and cultural history and is mentioned in a documentary series aimed at the general public because some kids in high school might have to do a project on a historical American female personality.

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